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On tiny Weehawken Street, a historic building will pay homage to Manhattan’s roots

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The 130-year-old building is being deeded to the Lenape tribe, who will use it as a prayer house

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Lower Manhattan is steeped in history that is, as often as it’s acknowledged, also ignored. But one downtown resident is embracing the area’s past in a unique way. Jean-Louis Goldwater Bourgeois, son of famous French-American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, told the New York Post this week that he is transferring the $4 million deed of his historic West Village house on tiny Weehawken Street to the Lenape tribe, the original inhabitants of the island now known as Manhattan. “This building is the trophy from major theft,” Goldwater Bourgeois told the Post. “It disgusts me.”

“The house isn’t important. It’s the land that the house sits on that’s important,” he continued. The idea to return the house at 6 Weehawken Street (or 392-393 West Street) and the land under it to the island’s original people came to Goldwater Bourgeois in 2011. At an Occupy Wall Street protest, he met Joseph Scabby Robe, a Cree Indian who introduced him to Anthony Jay Van Dunk, a Brooklyn woodworker who’s also a chief of the Ramapough Indians, part of the Lenape Nation.

Together Goldwater Bourgeois and Van Dunk discussed converting the home, which Goldwater Bourgeois acquired in 2006 for $2.2 million, into a patahmaniikan, or prayer house. Van Dunk says the prayer house will be a “place of safety” where indigenous people can get in touch with their language and tradition. The property is protected by the Weehawken Street Historic District, designated in 2006.

6 Weehawken Street pictured around the turn of the 20th century.
Museum of the City of New York

The patahmaniikan is just the next step for the historic property—a new chapter in its deeply interesting history. The site the townhouse stands on was once part of Newgate State Prison, a colonial jail that opened in 1796 in the small village of Greenwich. It was designed by Joseph-Francois Mangin, the architect of New York City Hall, according to Daytonian in Manhattan. The state abandoned the prison in 1829 following an inspection that uncovered deplorable living conditions. The remaining prisoners were sent to Sing Sing up in Ossining, which opened in 1826.

Once Newgate was demolished, the city planned an open-air market at the site called Greenwich Market that was bound by West Street, Christopher Street, West 10th Street (then called Amos Street), and Weehawken Street. The market, constructed in 1834, consisted of “wooden, open shed constructions with deep overhanging eaves to shelter farm and fish wagons that would back up to the buildings,” per DiM, one of which became the foundation for the house at 6 Weehawken Street.

6 Weehawken Street, pictured in 1920 during the Prohibition era.
Museum of the City of New York

When the market failed and was set for demolition in 1848, shipbuilder George Munson took the opportunity to purchase the market stall for $1,550, converting it into a space for business by enclosing it and adding a second floor and its recognizable rear outdoor staircase. The property was leased by an inn-owner and his wife, who lived upstairs while running a saloon that served “stout and malt liquors” to sailors.

The property remained a saloon under different ownership through 1920, when it was shuttered by Prohibition. The owner at the time converted the property from a bar to a restaurant, known as Billie’s Original Clam Broth House. It was around that time that the West Village, once a popular gathering place for the less virtuous, became the desirable residential enclave it remains.

The historic property in its less savory days, as seen from its West Street frontage.
LPC

The property was purchased by a retired mariner in 1943, who in 1945 told The Villager he fixed up the property and reinforced it. He sold items for dockworkers and shipworkers, like canvas gloves, from the home until he moved out in 1946. From there, DiM says the building housed gay bars and X-rated video stores until it was purchased by Goldwater Bourgeois in 2006.

It is in ways fitting that the townhouse on Weehawken Street is poised to return to the Lenape. After all, through certain translations, the street takes its name from the Lenape for “rocks that look like trees.”

For more on the building’s fascinating history, find the short version at Daytonian in Manhattan, or the long version on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Weehawken Historic District designation report.